New Law Authorizes Use of Force Against Taiwan

Paramilitary police read about China's anti-secession law on Taiwan

Paramilitary police read about China's anti-secession law on Taiwan at a base in Wenling, in eastern China's Zhejiang province, on March 17, 2005. (Photo: AFP / AFP-Getty Images)

In a move which has caused consternation in Taiwan and drawn criticism from around the world, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, has overwhelmingly passed a controversial bill which sanctions the use of force should Taiwan ever seek formal independence from the Chinese mainland.

According to the official Xinhua news agency the 10-article bill allows the use of “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” should diplomatic methods fail.

Coming shortly after the appointment of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the post of chairman of the state military commission — the last position to be held by his predecessor and leadership rival Jiang Zemin — the anti-secession legislation has been seen by some observers as President Hu’s attempt to stamp his authority on China’s Taiwan policy following Jiang’s demise.

Reflecting a more hard line stance over Taiwanese claims for full independence from the Chinese mainland, Hu recently announced a 12.6 percent rise in military spending while urging the People’s Liberation Army to prepare for a possible conflict.

Speaking to representatives from the armed forces a few days before the passing of the anti-independence bill, Hu encouraged them to “step up preparations for possible military struggle and enhance our capabilities to cope with crises, safeguard peace, prevent wars and win the wars, if any.”

The passing into law of the legislation caused an immediate reaction from Taipei with government leaders denouncing the legislation.

“The law is tantamount to authorization of war… as the law’s essence is allowing adoption of ‘non-peaceful’ means against the island if necessary,” said cabinet spokesman Cho Jung-tai to reporters.

“All people in Taiwan are against the legislation, and we believe the world community also opposes it,” Cho said.

Taiwan’s official Mainland Affairs Council released a statement describing the move as a “serious provocation” and called on Beijing to “sincerely apologize to the Taiwanese people for their grave mistake.”

President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan was also critical of the bill and called for a more conciliatory approach. Speaking to reporters following the announcement of the draft of the bill Chen said, “In the face of the pressing threat, our practical attitude is [to be seeking] rapprochement but not backing down, holding firm but not [to] be confrontational.”

While recent moves toward formal independence from the mainland by Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party have stalled somewhat following the party’s failure to secure a legislative majority in the country’s recent elections, the government has promised to organize one million people in a protest against the anti-secession bill and oppose what they see as interference in Taiwanese internal affairs.

China has regarded Taiwan as a “renegade province” since 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army retreated to the island and established an autonomous, though not independent, state after being defeated by the Chinese Communists. While always maintaining its policy of reunification, the Chinese government has usually been happy to accept the status quo provided no moves toward formal independence were made.

However, responding to increased secessionist moves since the rise to power of Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party in 2000, China has strengthened calls for reunification with the province with more hard-line members in the ruling party pushing to include a “reunification clause” in the integration bill, a move which would have set a deadline for Taiwan’s return to China’s control.

The bill was eventually passed without the deadline clause; however, feeling remains high in some sectors of the Chinese Government that strong action is needed to counter Taiwanese secessionist forces.

Chinese leaders have played down the strident tone of the legislation, however, and Premier Wen Jiabao, was quick to emphasize the more positive aspects of the legislation.

“This is a law for peaceful reunification. It is not targeted at the people of Taiwan nor is it a war bill,” Wen said in a press conference following the vote. “The law is intended to check and oppose Taiwan independence forces. Only by checking and opposing Taiwan independence forces will peace emerge in the Taiwan Strait.”

The United States has called on China to reverse the legislation describing it as “unfortunate.” Speaking to reporters following the vote, White House spokesman Scott McClelland said, “We view the adoption of the anti-secession bill as unfortunate. It does not serve the purpose of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

On the eve of an Asian tour during which she will visit China, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also criticized the legislation saying to reporters, “we have said to both parties that it is not helpful to have unilateral steps that raise tensions across the straits.”

Though the United States continues to recognize Beijing diplomatically through its “one-China” policy, and therefore refuses to support Taiwanese independence, it is in fact deeply committed to the defense of the island.

A 1979 defense agreement, which commits the United States to defending Taiwan against attack from the mainland, has formed the cornerstone of the bilateral relationship and the United States has responded to past escalations in rhetoric between the two countries by sending warships to the Taiwan Strait.

Already stretched militarily, Bush administration officials will be hoping for, and actively pursuing, a quick diplomatic solution to the current tension.